Anna Maria van Schurman: A Genius by Birth

Anna Maria van Schurman was a remarkable Dutch Golden Age scholar who possessed talent of poetry, multilingualism (Latin, Greek) and the art of painting, sculpting and engraving.

Anna Maria Van Schurman

Agu Jaachynma N.E., a Nigerian author, wrote: “An intelligent woman is a goldmine! She has the ability to learn, reason, and understand things better and faster than her contemporaries. She is competent, alert, and can reason out stuff easily.” Well, this quote goes well with millions of women right now. But in the past, when we check up on the historical pieces of evidence, there have been only a few women who actually became learned. For instance, all along the Dutch Golden Age, one of the prominent scholars, or should I say, the most learned woman of her age throughout the seventeenth century, was Anna Maria van Schurman. With several names given to her, like The Star of Utrecht, The Dutch Minerva, The Tenth Muse, A Miracle of Her Sex and The Oracle of Utrecht, she was the first woman ever to attend a university and the first one who boldly advocated that women should be admitted into universities. A brilliant linguist with knowledge of fifteen languages, Anna was the first Dutch woman to have her own publication. Today we are here to learn about her life and how her artworks defined her.

Artist Abstract: Who Was Anna Maria van Schurman?

Born on 5 November in Cologne in 1607 to Frederik van Schurman of Antwerp and Eva von Harff de Dreiborn, Anna moved to Utrecht with her family in 1616. Anna had two older brothers, Hendrik Frederik and Johan Godschalk and a younger brother, Willem. She enjoyed a Europe-wide reputation as a phenomenon of female talent, who has various interests in theology, philosophy, medicine, literature, numismatics, painting, sculpture, embroidery and instrumental music. Through her letters, one gets insights into the challenges, which scholarly women faced in the early modern period when they defined themselves as writers and intellectuals. 

Portrait of Anna Maria van Schurman

Paul Jacob writes in ‘Eloge de mademoiselle Anne marie de Schurman,’

“She has qualities which give passion to virtue itself and which force the most beautiful minds to travel across lands and seas to hear and see her. As for me, I will never be satisfied until I have seen the city which Anne has turned not only into the temple of honour but also of virtue.”

The artistic input of Anna is perhaps best understood as a component of her many-sided virtuosity. One must know that she was never a professional artist as her art was part of a complex construction of herself as a multi-talented being. One might interpret it as a deliberate assertion of female equality in all fields of science and the arts. The Dissertatio (1641), her treatise argued for women inclusion in higher education and suitability for scientific research.

NameAnna Maria van Schurman
BirthNovember 5, 1607; Cologne
DiedMay 4, 1678; Wiuhert, Netherlands
GenreSelf Portraiture
MediumPastels and Graphite, Oil Paint, etc.

Life of the Artist.

Early Life.

Having been baptized in a clandestine Calvinist church in Cologne, Anna moved southwest of Cologne to Sceildon with her family at eight, the home where her mother’s ancestors lived. In 1615 they settled in Utrecht after moving to The Hague, where Frederik van Schurman had business to attend to. Talking about her education, in Eukleria, at the age of three, she could read German accurately and recite the part of the Heidelberg catechism from memory. 

When Anna was four, a maid asked her while collecting herbs and flowers to recite the first question of the Heidelberg catechism, which she described as,

“At the words that I am not my own but belong to my most faithful Saviour Jesus Christ, my heart was filled with such a great and sweet joy and an intimate feeling of the love of Christ that all the subsequent years have not been able to remove the living memory of that movement.”

At seven, Anna studied at the French school as was customary among elite families, but soon after two months, she resumed her studies at home, learning about writing arithmetic, and instrumental music. Bullart says,

“At the time she began to speak Latin, taught by a Preceptor, who taught this language to her older brothers, so much that by 10 or 11, she became adept at correcting her brothers.”

Anna used to love reading poems, but the only poet which she admitted to reading was Guillaumne du Bartas, the French Guguenot encyclopedic and cosmological writer whose Sepmaine ou creation du monde, (The Week, or Creation of the World, 1578) and Seconde Sepmaine (Second Week, 1584) recounted the first seven days of creation and its sequel in Genesis. When she was eleven, she read the lives of the martyrs, including all likelihood Commentarii Rerum in Ecclesia Gestarum. 

For now, you might have understood that the first decade of Anna’s life was about the learned study at home. 

Mid-Life and Career.

It was only in 1620 that Anna got her first recognition for her talents for her artistic work and learning. A women emblem writer from Amsterdam, Anna Roemers Visscher praised her in a poem for not merely a cultivated woman with skills in art and music but an erudite for her Latin and Greek. The ending of this poem says,

“Let honour to your Father come, who educated you so well.”

In Eukleria, a spiritual autobiography written in life, Anna claims that she never had any artistic training, but in her youth, she was under apprenticeship to the engraver Magdalena van der Passe. 

In the late 1620s, Anna got national recognition for her intellect. Her bother, who replaced her deceased father, acted as Anna’s publicity agent. And on 5 December 1629, he introduced himself and Anna to Caspar van Baerle and a Neo-Latin poet in the hope to get attention from Barlaeus. Consequently, a month later, Barlaeus excitedly announced the existence to Anna at the court of The Hague, 

“There is in Utrecht, a rare exemplary young girl, Anna Maria van Schurman, who is Roman not only because she possesses a first name, name and surname, but because she speaks Latin. She paints, writes, versifies, reads Greek and understands it. She is truly a learned woman for the Batavians.”

This way, Anna’s networks extended from individual Dutch scholars to the court circles at Hague and coteries in Utrecht and Dordrecht. She had fame in the geographical borders, even attracting early interest from French savants. A primary reason is that she belonged to a prominent centre of scholarly letter writing, which flourished in the Dutch Republic from the middle of the sixteenth to the seventeenth century.

Looking at Anna Maria van Schurman Paintings.

The earliest dated works from Anna were two portraits in oil on panel, which were probably, her brother, Hendrik Frederik, and Johan Gottschalk can Schurman. She had the most productive years from the 1630s to the 40s. Becoming a member registered of the Utrecht Guild of St Luke in 1643 as an artist, sculptor and engraver, she had a brief career artistically. 

The anonymous engraved portrait of her in Jacob Cat’s Werelts begins midden en Eynde, besloten in den trou-ringh, met den proef-steen van den selven, follows her own design and shows her in front of the window, which can be seen from the tower of Utrecht’s famous cathedral.

One of Anna’s paintings was an etched portrait of Gisbert Voet, now in Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam. It shows a modest scale and format with a subject shown till bust-length and in a three-quarter profile, without hands.

Portrait of Gisbert Voet, the Artist's Teacher by Anna Maria van Schurman

Many artists painted her self-portraits, including Catharina van Hemessen and Judith Leyster. Anna was a proficient artist in an extraordinary variety of media, producing portraits in oil, gouache, graphite and pastel, engraved and etched portraits. One of her pastels, Self-Portrait of 1640, is another example of her work with a different style. Other than painting, she was proficient in embroidery, calligraphy, paper cut-outs and glass engravings.

Self Portrait Anna Maria van Schurman Paintings

However, in the late 1640s, her artistic career declined as she developed an interest in theological issues and committed herself to the love of God.

Final Words.

Anna becomes a crucial artist to study because of her intellect, and accomplishments and a reformer to women’s education. With her many self-portraits, she showed different forms of art through etchings, pastels, and oil paints. As a member of the Labadists- a protestant sectarian community, she spent her end years towards religion. 


1. Dictionary of Women Artists, 1997 by Delia Gaze,

2. Women Artists, 1550-1950 by Harris Sutherland Ann and Nochlin Linda.

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